Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On Death and Free Will

Fans of my drunken rantings know this is a favorite topic of mine. But I was watching the very excellent History of Disbelief BBC documentary when a Greek philosopher named Epicurus was mentioned. A quote from one of his letters excerpted in the documentary is below.

Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.

I like it, makes sense. It's a sentiment which I'm sure I've heard before but is much better-spoken by Epicurus. Makes me wonder why we don't teach more about Greek philosophers in school. Plus it doesn't hurt that Epicureanism is a mild form of hedonism, a philosophy which sometimes intrigues me. And of course there's the Epicurean Paradox, which surely has as many resolutions as there are people who've attempted to resolve it:

God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, he is weak -- and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful -- which is equally foreign to god's nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?

If I recall my Christian upbringing correctly, bad things came from man disobeying God/wanting to be like God and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The implication was that the free will of man was the cause of bad things, and that the absence of evil was incompatible with man's free will. Because God wanted man to have free will, and because free will was incompatible with a world without evil, he didn't remove evil. In essence, man suffers because of a cost-benefit analysis God made eons ago.

But I'm not convinced that the concept of free will is inherently contradictory with a perfectly good existence. Readers of Plato are no doubt familiar with his writings on the education of the good. The idea was that a person who loved the good and its virtues was the freest man of them all; he could do whatever he wanted because all he wanted to do was good. So goes the theory; obviously the implementation is lacking.

One would think an omnipotent god would have been able to properly implement such a world, especially given that it's theoretically possible to do so. Surely one can't put all the blame on man.

Or I could be wrong; just all random thoughts from an engineer with a strange fascination with this sort of thing. Surely someone will tell me why I'm wrong, which is always welcome.


Blogger Luke said...

I guess my question would be: Why do we think we would be able to understand God's motives? As long as we are assuming there is a God and we are using what the Bible tells us about Him, we know that He lives outside of the realms of time and space as we know it. How can we possibly understand things of this nature?

What we do know is that man did and does sin, and that God wishes for us to be forgiven of those sins and be with him for eternity. That is enough, at least for me, to know what God intends for me and what I am looking forward to in the afterlife.

As far as Epicurus goes, I do not fear death or worry of it. I look forward to the afterlife and enjoy my time here during my life.

Anyway...just my thoughts.

1/04/2007 9:23 PM  
Blogger Aaron *@ said...

Granted I haven't read the entire Bible yet, nor have I read the thousands of years worth of rabbinical and Christian commentary about the Tanakh/Bible (when I become fluent in ancient Hebrew and Greek I'll give it a shot), but I'd imagine there's something about God's motivation in those thousands of pages.

If there isn't, why can't we use our motivations as a model for God's? The Christian God claims we were created in his image, so it seems reasonable that his motivations to create would be similar to man's motivation to create (or at least mine and others I know's motivation): a desire to make better the status quo.

I'm still not entirely sure how motivation fits into what I said; perhaps you could clarify your thoughts here. My concern (and I think Epicurus') was that God's implementation of his stated goal (which you've identified as being with every human on earth) was suboptimal, which means he either didn't want to optimize the implementation or was unable to. Motivation seems irrelevant to this argument.

I'm glad you don't fear death; I fear it a lot less than I used to. I was merely repeating what I thought was a beautiful and elegant argument for why one shouldn't fear death, especially since we both have heard the classic "only those who don't know God should fear death" line. (On that note, Epicurus predates Jesus by like 300 years. Why the hell does anyone still use that line when Epicurus gave such an elegant rebuttal to it 2300 years ago? Yet another reason we all should read more Greek philosophy.)

1/04/2007 11:45 PM  

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